More on Scientism

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Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

Dan Egeler writes in the Forward to J.P. Moreland’s book Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, “As the ideas that constitute scientism have become more pervasive in our culture, the Western world has turned increasingly secular and the centers of culture (the universities, the media and entertainment industry, the Supreme Court) have come increasingly to regard religion as a private superstition. It is no surprise, then, that when our children go to college, more and more of them are just giving up on Christianity.” It is no secret that much of the scientific community believes it is at odds with religion. In fact, scientists see themselves as the voice of reason. It is their intention—for the most part—to stem the tide of all this “irrational belief” in a divine creator or eternal being.

It can be argued that we might have been fooled into this pointless yin/yang fight between science (the physical) and metaphysical (the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter). How can someone believe in God and science at the same time? Science sees itself as the “great revealer” of reality, down to the very mathematical calculations about matter and energy. Belief in God is considered to be “old fashioned” or “backward,” if not outright elitist. Consider the words of Physics Nobel Prize winner Stephen Weinberg:

The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion. Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilization” [1] (italics mine).

If science and God do not mix, why were over 60% of Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2000 Christians? The history of modern science has many great Christian pioneers—Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Faraday. Ben Shapiro wrote, “Jerusalem and Athens built science. The twin ideals of Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law reasoning built human rights. They built prosperity, peace, and artistic beauty. Jerusalem and Athens built America, ended slavery, defeated the Nazis and the Communists, lifted billions from poverty, and gave billions spiritual purpose.” [2] Shapiro warns that atomistic individualism has a tendency to drift toward the self-justifying oppression of others. To me, atomistic means individualistic; society is comprised of a collection of self-interested and seemingly self-sufficient individuals swirling around one another like atoms. Christianity teaches us about society, neighborliness, love, mutual respect, fellowship, charity. It tells us no one is an island.

Science or Philosophy?

If I told you that the hard sciences alone have all intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality, and that everything else—especially theology, philosophy and ethics—is based upon private notions, blind faith, or culture, what would you say? More importantly, would you think such a conclusion is “scientific?” Better yet, is it a “provable” conclusion? This is the basic tenet of scientism. It is not science, but a worldview. Specifically, it’s a theory of epistemology (the branch of philosophy that studies what knowledge is and how we obtain it). Not only does scientism not provide a “scientific view,” it is actually a school of philosophy. Scientism is so pervasive today that it distorts reality and pollutes the field of science.

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This worldview believes religions cannot be proven intellectually. They come from within the individual (a private belief) and are typically handed down from our parents as part of our culture. I have no problem with the second part of that statement. Indeed, many beliefs are passed down through generations. This does not mean those beliefs are untrue. To say they are, especially in a biology class in public schools, is to manipulate religious conviction. Why is is appropriate for high school science teachers to promote the theory of evolution as though it were a “proven fact,” while at the same time leaving intelligent design out of the story of life? To do so is to stack the deck.

Moreover, the theory of evolution is rooted solely in “historical” science— using knowledge that is already currently known to tell the story of what happened in the past. Scientific method involves making conjectures (hypotheses), deriving predictions from them as logical consequences, and then carrying out experiments or empirical observations based on those predictions. Scientists then test hypotheses by conducting experiments or studies. Some proponents of naturalism and evolution claim Christian apologists are stretching the concept that historical science is not verifiable; that it is not proper “science” relative to events occurring eons ago. In fact, it is said that creationists fail to appreciate the history of science and science itself.

Historical science is a term used to describe sciences in which data is provided primarily from past events and for which there is usually no direct experimental data. That sounds straightforward to me. Admittedly, however, science does deal with past phenomena, particularly in historical sciences such as cosmology, geology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, and archeology. Arguably, there are experimental sciences and historical sciences. By their very definition, they use different methodologies. Naturalists and evolutionists believe both branches of science can properly track causality. This is where I lose faith in their explanation. If historical science can track causality regarding events alleged to have taken place during as varied a time as tens-of-thousands, hundreds-of-thousands, or millions of years ago, I’d like an explanation. How can we trust in scientific “theory” that cannot be verified?

The scientific method has five basic steps, plus plus one feedback step:

  1. Make an observation.
  2. Ask a question.
  3. Form a hypothesis, or testable explanation.
  4. Make a prediction based on the hypothesis.
  5. Test the prediction.
  6. Iterate: use the results to make new hypotheses or predictions.

Recognizing that we all approach the world with presuppositions, biases, misconceptions, and (at times) faulty data, it is critical to admit that these conditions shape the way we see and interpret the empirical world. In this regard, historical science cannot be considered on equal footing with operational science. Because no one was there to witness the past—with the exception of God—we must interpret scientific claims regarding origin on a set of starting assumptions. Creationists and evolutionists have the same evidence; they just interpret it within a different framework or worldview. Evolution denies the role of God (as intelligent designer) and creation accepts His eyewitness account (related in the Bible) as the foundation for arriving at a correct understanding of the universe. Admittedly, this is based on an act of faith. Scientism and evolution, however, are also based on faith. They are philosophical viewpoints in the same manner as theism and intelligent design. Some, in fact, regard science as their religion.

J.P. Moreland on Scientism

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J.P. Moreland cites an example in Scientism and Secularism regarding the policy of public schools in the State of California in 1989, “Science Framework,” which offered guidance to teachers about how to address students who expressed reservations about the theory of biological macroevolution:

“At time some students may insist that certain conclusions of science cannot be true because of certain religious or philosophical beliefs they hold… It is appropriate for the teacher to express in this regard, ‘I understand that you may have personal reservations about accepting this scientific evidence, but it is scientific knowledge about which there is no reasonable doubt among scientists in their field, and it is my responsibility to teach it because it is part of our common intellectual heritage'” (italics mine)[3].

The above “policy statement” is actually a picture of knowledge it assumes to be true: knowledge about what is real can only be determined  by hard science, and empirical knowledge derived from hard science is the only knowledge deserving of the backing of public institutions. Science uses terms like “conclusions,” “evidence,” “no reasonable doubt,” and “intellectual heritage” to elevate itself as the only method for understanding reality. Scientism denigrates terms like “beliefs,” “faith,” and “personal reservations” as non-empirical and inappropriate, unfounded opinions. Indeed, this is not a level playing field!

It is critical to realize that scientism is a philosophy or belief system and not science. It is not proof beyond reasonable doubt. Scientism is not the identification of something as scientific or unscientific but the belief that “scientific” is far more valuable than “non-scientific” or worse, that “non-scientific” has negligible value. Moreover, this conclusion is making a huge assumption: there is no scientific proof of intelligent design or a supreme being. To decide this to be true is to close one’s mind to any possibility that science can prove metaphysical claims. Granted, whenever science establishes a prior metaphysical or ephemeral claim as fact, it moves from the category of metaphysical to the physical or scientific category. Unfortunately, the New Atheists label those who believe in God as irrational, deluded, backward, or closed-minded. And they feel justified in doing so because they believe there are no truths that can be known apart from appropriately certified scientific claims. First, that is not uncategorically true. Second, it dogmatically decides no such evidence will ever be found.

The Damage Done

Battle Between Science and Christianity

Because scientism is virtually everywhere in our postmodern pluralist society, it is considered to be “normal” if not essential. Increasingly, Christians are considered to be out of touch with reality. Stuck in the past. Scientism wants everyone to agree that religion is a byproduct of fear, doubt, and the quest for meaning, and that science has moved mankind further along the continuum of information. The only “stuff” that matters today is data. Scientism puts Christian claims on the outside looking in—beyond what people generally consider reasonable and rational. Accordingly, one of the disturbing side-effects of scientism is making the ridicule of Christianity more common and acceptable. It states that any belief in an invisible God or an intelligent designer is not just untrue, but unworthy of any rational consideration.

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The rise of modern science in the seventeenth century was founded on testing and rejecting authoritarian claims of truth. Whether Scripture, tradition, or Aristotle, authority must not stand in the face of logic and evidence. We see proof of this with the story of Galileo, who trusted the truths of mathematics and personal observation despite the fact that his conclusions contradicted the doctrine of the church or the authority of the ancients. Indeed, our universe is heliocentric (earth and the other planets revolve around the sun) not geocentric. Earth is not the center of the universe. Over the centuries, the scientific method led to better comprehension of nature and life. Technology transformed our world beyond the scope of mere fantasy.

Unfortunately, science has been erroneously identified as an “authority” we tend to bow to without question. Research necessarily leads to provisional conclusions, yet these conclusions are typically taught (if not worshiped) as the only definitive basis for the physical world. Science enjoys a prestige that often obscures how tentative its claims are in reality. This has led to professional advancement, political advantage, and ideological “certainty” which is intrinsically bound to the acceptance of new ideas or alleged truths. Countless individuals suspend any doubt or skepticism simply because science has “proven” something. This is a dangerous conclusion that is based on the worldview of scientism.

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More critically, science has encroached improperly on the world of human thought, philosophy, religion, and truth. Scientists have decided to apply the physical sciences to the behavior and motivations of people, their social and cultural practices, and their theological beliefs. They insist that everything in the universe (the physical and the metaphysical) can be understood through the precepts of natural laws; able to be predicted and analyzed by Newtonian physics. Carl Sagan famously said, “The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.” Frankly, this viewpoint is both illogical and based solely on conjecture. It is a personal belief and a scientific fact.

Critical issues concerning human behavior and motivation cannot be scientifically defined. We are decidedly different from animals or other natural phenomena. We have a mind, consciousness, self-awareness and self-determination, and (most importantly) the freedom to choose how we will act. None of these attributes has been explained solely through science. Psychology and sociology are considered “soft” sciences for this very reason. Give a man a situation and he will decide for himself in that situation how to react to it. In fact, most of our problems today are caused not so much by the situation itself as they are based on how we respond to that situation. Response has power to create a pseudoreality. We “see” things through the eyes of gender, race, culture, nature/nurture, personality, religion, and political viewpoint.

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Consider how these variables impact science. Sagan said, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” Of course, he believed this was an accurate statement. It was his intention to impose this conclusion of everyone. Moreover, a statement such as this has no basis in scientific fact, theory, or empirical evidence. It is Sagan’s feeble attempt to see inside the soul of man. The very fact that this was his worldview meant he was not likely to “see” any evidence to the contrary. This is precisely what makes scientism dangerous and damaging.

Worldview is the framework of our most basic beliefs. It shapes our view of and for the world, and is the basis of our decisions and actions. Unfortunately, it is built in part on our preconceptions, presuppositions, biases, prejudices, and culture. James Sire said our propositions are actually deeply-rooted commitments of the heart. Quoting Naugle, Sire states, “Theory and practice are a product of the will, not the intellect; of the heart, not the head.” [4] Entwistle provides an important insight into worldview, stating, “What we see depends, to some degree, on what we expect and are predisposed to see.” [5] 

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Since time began, man has been bothered by metaphysical questions to which there seem to be no simple answers. Ravi Zacharias (a leading Christian apologist) says there are four great questions regarding life: (1) What is the origin of life?; (2) What is the meaning of life?; (3) Where does morality come from?; and (4) What is our ultimate destiny after death? From a philosophical and theological viewpoint, there are no universal responses to these questions. Scientice would like us to believe there are. Science believes it hold the only answer to the first two questions; they relegate the last two answers to philosophy or theology. It’s obvious that worldviews are as divergent as mankind itself. What makes this issue more complex is that worldviews are not limited to matters of culture or science, nor do they reside solely in the intellect. Rather, they are typically of the heart, not the head. A person’s worldview serves as the foundation or infrastructure for their values, which determine their behavior. Accordingly, it is crucial that Christianity labors to establish the ontological (underlying) truth of all things. This can only be accomplished by first grasping the meanings contained in the Scriptures, and then defending the very reason for our faith (1 Pet. 3:15).

I will admit, the same thing can be said about religion or faith. Theology is not science, but it is not anti-science. That’s the great lie evolutionists and most biologists tell everyone: Religion cannot be proven; faith is a private, subjective belief in something unseen; science clearly establishes the basis for all reality—indeed, all truth. Hold on a sec! That last one is not science; it is scientism. We’ve established that scientism is not science, but a worldview. It is a philosophical opinion about science that is not based on logic or evidence. Further, I agree that my belief in Almighty God (theism) and the life, teachings, ministry and atoning death of Jesus (Christianity) is at least to some degree based on faith.

Faith is not at issue. Mankind is not just a cluster of “meat” or “carbon-based” individuals wandering through the universe—material conglomerations of matter changing with every moment. We are individuals with responsibilities, morals, beliefs, and the ability to reason and question. What’s at issue is scientism’s claim that science is the only source of truth and reality, which is a philosophical claim and not an empirical scientific fact. Period. Moreover, to deny reason would be to end all human interaction, destroy our politics and sociology, and tear down what it means to be human at the root. It would be to decide one of two things: either the four great questions of Ravi Zacharias are not relevant to life itself or, perhaps worse, that science is the only vehicle by which we can definitively answer these questions.

Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (NIV). Faith has always been the hallmark of Christianity. The “principle” tenet of Christianity is planted in the heart of the believer through the Holy Spirit. Faith, in this manner, is a firm persuasion and expectation that everything the Bible says about God and Christ is true. Moreover, the believer has decided to trust that Scripture provides a true and accurate account of the origin of all things.

Is it just me, or does Darwinism make the same “faith” claim, but does so as if it were an ontological, underlying, clearly-proven fact?

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I want to start encouraging more feedback so we can open a dialog. Presently, in order to leave a comment you need to scroll back to the header and click on LEAVE A COMMENT, but I’m in the process of figuring out how to move the COMMENT bar to the end of each post. Thanks for reading. God bless.

Footnotes

[1] Stephen Wineberg, New Science, Issue No. 2578, November 18, 2006.

[2] Ben Shapiro, The Right Side of History (New York: HarperCollins, 2019), p. xxiv-xxv.

[3] J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), p. 28.

[4] James Sire, Naming the elephant: Worldview as a concept, 2nd ed (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2015), p. 35.

[5] Davide Entwistle, Integrative approaches to psychology and Christianity, 3rd ed (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2015), p. 93.

Repent, Believe, Follow

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

I WANT TO HAVE A CONVERSATION about what it means to truly follow the way of Jesus. There are, unfortunately, nearly as many explanations of this critical theology as there are people who believe in it. Certainly, this is not what Jesus intended to happen in the Body of Christ. We see this in the numerous denominations, dogmas, philosophies, and factions present in the church today. Admittedly, most believers are making an honest attempt at presenting Jesus in a manner that attracts non-believers to Him. There is, however, a percentage of ministers and laypersons whose focus is on culture rather than Jesus.

Some in the ministry believe the best way to attract others to Jesus is to downplay the ugly side of His ministry: the wrath of God, the wages of sin, the nature of a fallen world, the dark side of the human heart. They think that zeroing in on these vitally important doctrines will cause new believers to lose heart, and block non-believers from coming in from the cold to hear the truth. Instead of shouting the truth of the Gospel from the mountaintop, they create “warm and fuzzy” messages, start coffee clatches at church, and ply the common man with “lights and music.” They create an atmosphere of pageantry, of pomp and circumstance, rather than proclaiming critical points of doctrine.

Truly, this is a matter of spirituality—how we go about following Jesus in word and in deed. The way of Jesus is about loving and saving the world. It is personal, not disembodied, abstract, convoluted, fleshly. Many churches in the United States today are glaringly impersonal: programs, organizations, discussion panels, techniques, general guidelines—about information rather than knowledge. For me, accumulation of information is not synonymous with the acquiring of knowledge. Facts don’t lead to change. Knowledge does.

Many who consider themselves “followers” of Jesus today seem to embrace the ways of their surrounding culture as they go about their daily living “in the Name of Jesus.” This is quite dangerous. It is as if they are going along with the world at work, at school, in the marketplace, while espousing the way of Jesus only while at church or in the company of other believers. It is as if they see Christianity as a religion and not a relationship. In other words, many are Christians in name only. They are “fans” of Christ, but not “followers.” Personally, this is a fairly recent change for me that came about through humility and complete honesty. It is a critical prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Christ.

Jesus presents us with a different way; one that is separate from the world, not a supplement to it. It is grounded in a personal relationship that can only grow through true repentance. Ah, but what does the word repentance really mean? If you want to discover an interesting but troubling truth about most mainstream Christians today, ask them to explain what it means to repent. Some will tell you it means reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. They believe it simply means saying to God, I am sorry. Please forgive me! But a literal translation of the Greek μετάνοια (“metanoia”) indicates a transformational change of the heart. It involves turning away from a life of sin and not going back. It’s “doing a 180.”

Jeremiah 35:15 says, “I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and amend your doings, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to you and your fathers.’ But you did not incline your ear or listen to me” (RSV) [Italics mine]. Personally, I did not take this step for decades. Typically, I made a profession of faith, but acted in a manner that was not consistent with my profession. In the vernacular, I “talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.” And isn’t the way of Jesus in reality a walk?

In essence, failing to walk out our profession of faith is wrong thinking and wrong living. One of the most stinging rebukes I’ve experienced was when my younger brother said, “I can’t stand you and I don’t trust you. You are nothing but a hypocrite!” Ouch! At the time, my reaction was one of anger. But my brother was right. I understood the what of following Jesus, but I had yet to practice the how. I was living a fleshly life like the rest of the world. My behavior was chock full of justification—ruled by anxiety, depression, selfishness, and chronic pain. My defense mechanisms, despite holding an undergraduate degree in psychology, included denial, rationalization, and projection. I justified my behavior because of how others had behaved toward me.

These excuses are ways of the flesh, involving coping strategies common to culture but not a proper part of the way of Jesus. Much of these mechanisms are terribly destructive. They are highly ineffective in promoting lasting interpersonal relationships. I know this because of the impact they’ve had on my life—divorce, loss of numerous jobs, no true close friends, estrangement from my family. Such behaviors are often useful in getting ahead in a secular world (albeit with considerable negative consequences relative to human connection), but not in the community of Jesus. They frustrate any attempt to become part of the Kingdom of God.

The Jesus Way

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Take a second look at what you just read. He said He is the way, sure, but He didn’t stop there. He also said He is the truth and the life. This statement is made up of three distinct parts. To ascribe to one of these three concepts is to invite failure in our Christian walk. The Jesus way is predicated upon to the truth He gave us about the life we can have through Him. Follow me for a minute here. Merely having information about Christianity (the way) will not produce truth in our everyday activities. Consequently, we will never achieve the life we can have in Him. Reading about the life we can have in Jesus is useful only in a “quiz bowl” competition on the Bible. We’ll get the question right, but we will miss the means by which we can come to know the truth about the information, and, therefore, live in a manner that is victorious.

In other words, the Gospel gets only partial attention in our churches today. The concept of Jesus as the way is the most frequently evaded metaphor among Christians today. This is because we don’t always hear the entire truth. Jesus, in His statement we read in John 14:6, sets out in plain language that the way comes first. We cannot know the truth, and then appreciate and live the life, without first entering into the way. This crucial step can’t be skipped if we are to become disciples of Christ. The way of Jesus is the only means by which we can obtain the ability to practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus Christ. This involves living Jesus seven days a week—in our homes and workplaces, at school and in the marketplace—not just on Sunday!

This is how the “local” church (our part in the Body of Christ) demonstrates the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus. We are told to leave everything behind, take up our cross (personal sacrifices needed for complete service), and follow Him. But what does it mean to follow Him? What do we need to give up in order to make this commitment real for us? I believe Jesus was stating an imperative: in order to follow Him we must live an authentic, committed life for Him and through Him. The beautiful life Jesus lived—marked by a passionate love for and unwavering obedience to God and a compassion for people—must be learned and practiced. It must not be theoretical (head knowledge); instead, it must be demonstrated through action (heart knowledge). We cannot live like Jesus without following Jesus.

More Than Mere Consumers

It seems the American way is the way of consumerism. I am not casting aspersions on our wonderful system of democracy, nor am I putting down the idea of open markets, free enterprise, and equal opportunity for success. Our country needs to return to the concept of providing equal access for obtaining an education and earning a fair living. These are, without a doubt, opportunities that are unique to the United States. Further, this is completely different from wealth. Equal opportunity leads to a level playing field for the accumulation of wealth. Opportunity begets wealth. It is not proper to take wealth from those who have obtained it and give it (without merit) to those who have not worked for it.

Perhaps this is why many of our churches today seem to be churches of consumerism. It is not appropriate, however, to market our churches in the same way we market and promote goods and services. When we approach “church” in this manner, we risk getting off message. This is typically not an intentional diversion. Rather, it is a symptom of using the wrong message (indeed, the wrong mechanism) for growing our congregations. It puts emphasis on “congregation” (the size of a church’s membership) rather than on the Body of Christ. Congregation is not the same thing as church.

Today’s churches, especially the so-called mega-churches, increase membership through marketing. Leaders of these types of congregations believe the quickest and most effective way to get people to come to services is to identify what they want and give it to them—satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the Gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem-solving, warm feelings, and the like. I see this specifically as a problem with the ministry of Joel Osteen. He promotes “the best life now,” saying, “everyday is Friday” (whatever that means), and tells his followers they need only stop seeing themselves as sinners, losers, damaged goods, hopeless and helpless. It’s not the concept that’s wrong; it’s the approach. This method leaves sin and repentance out of the message. Whenever we water down the Gospel, making it less harsh (in other words, more “palatable”), we step out of the way of Jesus.

The End of Me

“Follow me” is one of the greatest commands spoken by Jesus during his earthly ministry (see Mark 1:17). This statement, however, is preceded by the commands repent and believe (see verse 15). The Kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, He is the Kingdom. It is what Jesus revealed in His ministry. Our access to the Kingdom can only be obtained through repentance—a decision to leave one way of life (one reality) and enter another. It requires a complete change of mind and heart. In my own experience, I was unable to appreciate any victory over sin (especially over active addiction) until I came to believe, completely and entirely, that there is only one way to achieve it: the way of Jesus. My hope is you are able to grasp this sooner rather than later. It will revolutionize your life.

This requires what Kyle Idleman (2015) calls coming to “the end of me.” But what does this mean? In a nutshell, it means “death is life.” The Bible says life’s real prize is hidden. We have to know where to look for it. Paul wrote, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3, RSV). It indicates that to live the life that is hidden in Christ we must first die to ourselves. Jesus made this clear when He said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14, RSV).

Idleman writes, “Death is nobody’s favorite word. We tiptoe around it with nicer names. Someone passed on. They’ve gone ahead. They crossed the river” (p. 194). He says we tend to do whatever we can to live in denial of our eventual death. Perhaps you’ve heard the lyrics from Joe Diffie: “Well I ain’t afraid of dying, it’s the thought of being dead… prop me up beside the jukebox if I die, Lord I want to go to heaven, but I don’t want to go tonight.”

Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matthew 16:25-26, RSV). Jesus was not speaking of our physical (literal) death, but was speaking of a spiritual reorientation of our focus. To die to self is to set aside what we want and focus instead on loving God with everything we’ve got and valuing others as highly as we value ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-39). This moves us away from self-centeredness and closer to becoming openhearted followers of Christ who care deeply for others. We cannot serve God or others while enamored with ourselves.

Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, RSV). Focusing on ourselves is easy. It’s what we all do in the flesh. It’s part of our fallen nature. The moment Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and partake of the forbidden fruit, they put self-knowledge ahead of fellowship with God. As a result, their walk with the Father was forever changed. It is only through adhering to the command of Jesus to follow Him that we can ever hope to put God and our fellow man ahead of ourselves. This concept is, as I stated at the beginning of this article, found only through repenting (turning away from self and our sinful ways), believing that Jesus is the way to the Kingdom of God, and following Him.

True (spiritual) life is found only through the laying down of our physical (carnal) life. We are not wired to turn from our physical world and embrace the metaphysical. Indeed, we cannot grasp spiritual concepts merely by thinking about them. We can begin by taking steps each day to surrender. We cannot hope to comprehend the way of Jesus without denying ourselves. Jesus said, plainly and simply, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, RSV).

Jesus is our way to God. Moreover, Jesus is God’s way to us. God comes to us in Jesus, speaking the words of salvation. Those words necessarily begin with one simple but crucial step: repentance.

References

Idleman, K. (2015). The End of Me: Where Real Life in the Upside-Down Ways of Jesus Begins. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publications.

Perdew, Baylock, R., and Phillips, K. (1993). Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die) [Joe Diffie]. On Honky Tonk Attitude [CD recording]. New York, NY: Epic Records

Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Part One)

“But sanctify the LORD God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB).

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CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS SEEKS TO build bridges to unbelievers by presenting reasons and evidence that Christianity is true, rational and worthy of belief. Oxford theologian Alister E. McGrath said, “…Christian apologetics represents the serious and sustained engagement with ‘ultimate questions’ raised by a culture, people, group or individual aiming to show how the Christian faith is able to provide meaningful answers to such questions. Where is God in the suffering of the world? Is faith in God reasonable?” Agnostics and atheists are quick to conclude that either God is all-loving but not powerful enough to stop the evil that exists in the world, or He is all-powerful, but not willing to wipe out evil.

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Apologetics in a Post-Modern World

If everyone already belonged to one religion, apologetics might still be necessary as a way to provide believers with the best possible grounds for their faith. But clearly that is not the culture we live in. Modernism, which became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is rather difficult to pinpoint because it encompasses a variety of specific artistic and philosophic movements including symbolism, futurism, surrealism, dadaism, and others. Its basic tenet involves rejection of all religious and moral principles as the sole means of cultural progress. Consequently, it includes an extreme break with tradition. Specifically, modernism developed out of Romanticism’s revolt against the effects of the Industrial Revolution and bourgeois values.

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When modernism failed to cure the ills of society—war, famine, disease, exploitation, global environmental crises—postmodernism came on the scene. Postmodernists believe there is no such thing as absolute truth; rather, truth is a contrived illusion, misused by people in power to control others. Truth and error are synonymous. Facts are too limiting, changing erratically and often. Traditional logic and objectivity are spurned by postmodernists. Traditional authority is considered to be false and corrupt. Postmodernists wage intellectual battle against traditional truth and reality. They despise the unfulfilled promises of science, technology, government, and religion.

We presently live in a deeply diverse world characterized by pluralism. Pluralism is a word we encounter all the time, but few truly understand what it implies. It has at least three primary definitions. Thoroughly exploring what we mean by pluralism will help us clarify a lot of what we encounter in contemporary society. And getting the definition clear is necessary for any apologist who wants to understand and address his or her audience accurately.

Pluralism as Mere Plurality.

The basic definition of pluralism means the state of being more than one. A rudimentary example would be choices of breakfast cereal in the grocery store. Sociologists suggest that such proliferation of choices in modern society—the characteristic of various goods, services, and ideologies—is a process they call pluralization. Although discussions about pluralism are not new, all the relevant questions need to be carefully considered. What is God like? Is God a personal being or an impersonal force of energy? If Christianity is true, does it necessarily follow that all other religions are wrong? Can so many be wrong, or are all religions at least partially or equally valid? The fact of a pluralistic world has required theologians to adopt positions regarding believers in other religions.

Today’s militant atheists are no longer satisfied with simply choosing to not believe in God. They’ve taken on the “mission” of attacking Christianity and its ardent followers as religious bigots who are elitist, narrow-minded, deluded, and exclusionary in their approach to God and heaven. Granted, worldviews are mutually exclusive of all other beliefs, but it does not mean holding a belief in one true God makes the believer an elitist. Christians do not think they are morally better than people in other religions. Because Christianity does not teach salvation through works but salvation by grace through faith, all boasting is excluded (see Romans 3:27).

Pluralism as Preference.

This second definition goes beyond mere recognition that there is more than one; rather, it affirms that it is good that there is more than one. Here pluralism moves from sociological description to ideological description. Rather than “what is,” there is “what ought to be.” Pluralism can be expressed even about ultimate questions of life and death. Someone might prefer there to be more than one philosophy, more than one ideology, more than one religion in a society because the presence of competing alternatives prevents any individual or any group from asserting unchallenged claims to truth, justice and power. Such pluralism, on this understanding, also can lead to mutual and complementary instruction from each particular point of view.

In this regard, we are all pluralists. But preferring plurality in some instances does not, of course, commit one to preferring it in all instances. Consider that some individuals prefer matrimonial pluralism (polygamy) over monogamy. Someone else might support private ownership of property while others might believe in communal ownership, or the rule of law to anarchy, and so on. We must resist the illusion that pluralism means everyone is right and no one is wrong. Pluralism is often touted on the campuses of our liberal colleges as the only way to believe. In reality, most of us are pluralistic in only some matters and definitely not pluralistic in others.

Pluralism as Relativism.

Someone might recognize a situation as pluralism: “There is more than one.” Someone else might actually prefer a situation to be pluralistic: “It’s good that there is more than one.” But this level of pluralism goes further, declaring that no single option among the available varieties in a pluralistic situation can be judged superior to the others. For example, consider the claim everything is beautiful. To hold the attitude that everything is beautiful is to see every option as good. But is this truly accurate? Even on the basic level of vanilla versus chocolate, we’re talking subjective preference not objective judgment. When it comes to flavors of ice cream, all have their merits and all should be affirmed.

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This is clearly not applicable to the bewildering variety of religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Native religion, Islam, Wicca—all are belief systems considered “good” by their adherents. All can be labeled as “spiritual paths.” This becomes a rather sticky situation, however, when lifelong believers of these various religions are convinced that his or her belief is in fact the best of all. Interestingly, many young college students, when pressed, tend to confess that they feel they shouldn’t think that way. Atheists such as Richard Dawkins believe parents should not be allowed to force-feed their doctrine on their children. In fact, he sees this as a form of child abuse, indicating it takes away the child’s freedom to think for himself or herself.

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Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, complains that most college students today believe that everything is relative. Some are religious, some are atheist; some are to the Left, some to the Right; some intend to be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen; some are poor, some rich. They are unified only in their relativism, and they take comfort in that unity. They believe relativism is vital to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, to which all primary and secondary education in America has dedicated itself for more than fifty years. Therefore, openness is the great insight of modern times. The true believer is the real danger. Interestingly, the obsession that one is right no matter what has led to persecution, slavery, xenophobia, racism, chauvinism, and exploitation—not openness. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right. Instead, it is said that to think you’re right in the first place is wrong. This is precisely what has led to the modern-day concept that there is no way to tell good from evil!

It’s Not About Saying You’re Sorry!

Apologetics has little to do with how we understand the word apology today. Rather, it is derived from the Greek word apologia, which means to make a reasoned defense. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance describes apologetics as “a speech in defense” or “intelligent reasoning.” Etymology indicates apologetics was originally the term for making a legal defense in ancient courts. Accordingly, as used in 1 Peter 3:15, it means “to make a defense to everyone” or “to give an answer to every man.” It is vital that we not ignore the second part of the verse, which admonishes us to defend the faith with gentleness and respect (NIV).

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The question is  How can believers both defend and commend their religion without needlessly offending their neighbors and exacerbating the tensions of their community? After all, apologetics can bless and apologetics can curse. When engaging in defense of the Christian faith, we must always look for the most loving approach. Peterson (2006) says in his translation The Message, “If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all His mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump!’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing… no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2, 7). It is vital that we show the ability to critique a position or argument without lambasting the other person.

Effective Apologists are Good Listeners!

Be prepared to actively listen to people with whom you are having a discussion. Seek to understand where they are coming from. Never presume to know their “character” simply because of what they’ve said or written about their religion or cultural beliefs. Let them have their say whenever they wish to speak. It is important to be wary of steamrollers, but be careful of not being one yourself. It’s better to allow them to speak too much than too little or you’ll be accused of cutting them off at the knees. Respond to what they actually said, not what you think they should have said. Try to keep them on point, however, which is not always easy.

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If you’re debating them about Scripture, ask them to stay within one passage and reach a conclusion with you on that passage before moving on to another. You might not realize it, but just because you disagree with someone does not mean there’s nothing you can learn from them! Every individual has unique experiences and ideas, and you never know when their thoughts might compliment yours. Remain teachable, even from those with whom you vehemently disagree. Everybody makes mistakes from time to time. When someone points out an error or mistake on your part, do not try to cover it up. Admit to it, noting it was an honest mistake. If someone insists you’ve made a mistake when you are well-grounded in what you’ve stated, promise to check your sources and get back to them on it. It takes grace and humility to admit when you’re wrong, but people will respect you for it.

Don’t be baited by personal insults. Ad hominem attacks, which are by nature leveled against an individual rather than an argument, have unfortunately become quite common when discussing sensitive subjects such as religion. We should never repay insult with insult. Remember, Christ never retaliated against or mocked those who mocked Him. 

What’s Next?

Next Monday I will present a detailed look at the classical approach to Christian apologetics. What exactly does Christianity believe? Can truth be objectively known? What are the three main arguments for the existence of God? Are miracles possible in a physical universe? Is the New Testament historically accurate? Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? We’ll also look at the hypocrisy of intolerant tolerance. For example, when our public schools shifted their policy from decidedly Christian to “neutral,” it did not take long for them to go from neutral to intolerance. Public schools have become “Christian-free zones” in the name of so-called separation of church and state. We’ve allowed our government leaders to interpret and enforce the First Amendment as freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion.

Please join me next week for Part Two of Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today.